In the field: La 72 – Cesar Merlín

Written by: Berend van Groesen

Foto Cesar

During my time as a student of Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, I have never heard a more remarkable story than the research experience of one of my peers, Cesar Merlín. Cesar grew up and went to school in Mexico. At the age of 21, he decided to go abroad to the United States. He was staying on a tourist visa, but was illegally working there as well, to save up money. Afterwards, he decided to study Social Anthropology in Mexico City, after which he was granted a scholarship to do his masters abroad. Thanks to the scholarship, he ended up doing the masters of Anthropology and Development Studies in Nijmegen.

Having experienced various aspects of migration for himself, but also in his social surroundings, Cesar has always been interested in the anthropology of mobility and migration. Thus, due to ongoing issues of migration in Latin America to the United States and his own experiences, he felt like he was supposed to research the migration of Latin American migrant people to the United States. After a lot of preparation and research, he ended up volunteering and doing his field work at ‘Hogar Refugio Para Personas Migrantes La 72’. According to Cesar, the name of the organization is already a statement in itself. The name refers to a massacre in San Fernando, where 72 migrant people were murdered. The organization uses the term ‘migrant people’ on purpose, to emphasize and remind others that they are humans too. The shelter of La 72 is approximately 60 kilometres from the point where the most people cross the Mexican-Guatemalan border. This point is popular because it is closest to Tenosique, which is the starting point of a train to the United States, La Bestia. The organization provides shelter, food and protection of human rights for all migrants that aspire to go to the United States.

Even though the entire shelter and its work is incredibly interesting, a research needs a more specific focus. That is why Cesar decided to specifically chose men from Honduras as his research population. He looked into the ways in which these men socially navigated themselves at the shelter, in order to be able of physically continue their journey. One of the examples is how some of them contact ‘coyotes’ and ‘polleros’, which are names for people that smuggle them further to their destination. However, their social navigation and journey is much harder than it may sound. According to the research of Cesar, most of the people that he spoke to have three priorities: (1) Getting to the border as cheap and fast as possible, (2) not to get caught by migration agents, and (3) not to become victims of criminal organizations like Los Zetas.

All three priorities have their own challenges. Firstly, it is difficult to get to the border fast and cheap. Due to the pressure that the United States government puts upon the Mexican government, the migration is not necessarily stopped. However, Cesar states that the pressure is meant to slow the migration down, which is meant to decrease the motivation for people to continue their journey. Also because of shelters like La 72, he found that these places can indirectly contribute to these negative effects. Some people remain at the shelter for months, in order to find local jobs or other ways to get money for their journey. Even though the shelter can indirectly cause negative effects, it still has an important role in the protection of human rights and survivability of the migrant people.

Secondly, one of the experiences that Cesar shared, was how he and someone else from the shelter were picking immobile people up near the border. Otherwise, they would not be able to walk to the shelter. Walking also makes them more vulnerable to criminal organizations. At some point, when they picked about 18 people up, the migration patrol showed up in two vans. One of them drove in front of them, one of them behind them. While transporting the migrant people is not considered illegal, the authorities could twist the story to ‘human trafficking’, and thus arrest them. Acts of intimidation like this caused some people to jump off the truck while still driving. Cesar said that some of those people reached the shelter, but how he has never seen some of them again.

The third challenge is due to the fact that the migrant people are considered to be preys for kidnapping and human trafficking. For example, many criminal organization are fighting to control the area. By controlling the area, they gain power. This violent environment forms another danger for the already vulnerable migrant people.

During his research, Cesar argued that he has experienced many things, both beautiful and horrific. Whereas some events were discouraging and sometimes even traumatizing, the spirit of the people around the shelter was what kept Cesar going. When I asked him if he would like to give a piece of advice after his research, he wanted to make two things clear. Firstly, always try to think about your own physical and mental health. Do not be afraid to take a step back if you feel like something can harm you. Secondly, choose a subject of research to which you can relate. This can be hard and challenging at some times, but will eventually lead to the most interesting results.